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Level Thoughts part 2: The Negative Aspects

Last time, I went into detail about how some of the ways level in RPGs can be used in a positive manner, and how they can be used to enhance the experience of playing an RPG, and I used tabletop RPGs as one example.  This time, I’ll be exploring the negative aspects of how they can be used in RPGs.  As I said in the last entry, I’m not going to try and approach anything in bad faith, although I do have my own biases and that can come into play, so keep that in mind while reading.

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The genesis of this discussion.  Copyright CD Projeket Red

In the Witcher III, Geralt, a veteran monster slayer travels around a big, possibly overlarge, world where he takes jobs to kill monsters.  It’s a lot of fun, but one thing that really gets in the way is how it uses a level system in order to divide up where the player can travel.  Ostensibly, the level system is there to make sure Geralt doesn’t get access to too powerful loot too early, and that early, low level monsters remain a challenge until they can be outclassed.  I can understand this, since a lot of RPGs use this element to great success, but the reason it’s an issue in Witcher III when it’s not in, say, Final Fantasy VII, is because all level equates to, as far as monsters are concerned, are numbers.  How much damage, how much HP, how much damage it ignores, etc.  A level 5 gryphon has the same abilities will have the same abilities as level 10 one.  In fact, a gryphon is similar in abilities to several other monsters, differing from, say a wyvern, by one or two abilities.

Level means little to Geralt beyond numbers, but because how big these differences in numbers between levels can be, it means that Geralt can’t just wander around, pick up a random monster contract and hope to complete it if the contract is several levels higher than Geralt.  It’s not a guarantee, I’ve personally killed monsters outside of my level range, but mostly by spending several minutes dodging and getting in a couple of hits when I can.  It’s not impossible, but it’s tedious and it makes the combat less engaging than it already is.  Even a single screw up would get me killed, and it wasn’t enjoyable.  Most of the time, if I ran into a higher level monster, I’d just run, maybe come back later.  Of course, by the time I got high enough level to fight them, I’d tear them apart, since I was either way over leveled or the mechanics were so simple and their numbers were so low, they no longer mattered.

Open world games aren’t the only RPGs to show the issues with levels, but they seem to have the biggest problems with the level system.  There have been tons of attempts at trying to find a solution to this problem, most notably by making the game level with the PC.  Obviously, this makes leveling seem superflous, and while some Elder Scrolls games have tried to make higher level monsters more complex than lower level ones, leveling just seemed pointless, or detrimental in the case of Oblivion or Final Fantasy VIII (although VIII’s issue with leveling was different and more complex than I’ll get into here).  The best open world games seemed to have removed it entirely.  Consider Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which doesn’t use a level system, or at least a very simple one, but allows Link to wander the entire world without issue.  It’s possible to even engage Calamity Ganon at the beginning of the game, even if not awakening the Divine Beasts makes the fight much harder, and that difficulty isn’t just “extra damage.”  Yes, as Link becomes more powerful, more powerful monsters begin to appear, but they also become more complex, and thanks to an engaging, if easy to work, combat system, it’s possible to take on a lynel naked with three hearts without it being too tedious.  Part of this is because of really well done balance of HP and damage, but also it’s got a combat system that works as well.

Tabletop RPGs, too, sometimes work well without levels, although many claim they don’t need it and it pretty much destroys the game’s balance or work.  Games where combat is the main focus of the rules, even in games where they claim combat isn’t the main focus, tend to need levels in order to determine what works and what doesn’t for the game.  On the other hand, consider Fate, which doesn’t utilize levels or high numbers.  There is advancement, yes, but specific and individual advancement of different abilities.  While Fate does have combat, and it can be very good and complex combat, Fate is primarily focused on characters and who they are.  It’s a very robust RPG with complex mechanics and cool utilization of character and roleplay in order to facilitate play and it doesn’t need levels to be engaging.  If it had levels, it would get in the way of how to play the game, since it’s primary mechanics are “aspects,” which are elements of the characters, both positive and negative.  They can be elements of personality, beliefs, weaknesses, specialized training, special equipment, dependents, allies, enemies and many other things, but the important thing is that you have all of them from the beginning.  At no point does the player “level up” and gain more aspects.  It would hurt the game, because everyone is supposed to be able to engage with the game at the same level.  Even in places where you can “level up” are still given out to whole parties, not individual players, so when characters bring up their skills or gain new stunts, it’s with the whole group.

The big issue is that levels work when they’re to make sure novice players aren’t thrown against more complex characters, but they don’t work when they’re just there to use big numbers.  That’s what makes the game boring.

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Ending Talk: Final Fantasy XV

Now that it’s officially July, the requisite six months have passed since Final Fantasy XV’s release that I’m willing to discuss spoilers of the game freely.  I know a lot of people haven’t had a chance to play or finish the game, since 2016 and 2017 have been packed to the absolute brim with great game, and that kick ass train doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.  So, I will be writing about a lot of very big spoilers about everything regarding this game, other than the DLC (since I haven’t played it, and Ignis’s isn’t out yet) and this is a warning.  That said, I’m not going to get into spoilers until I put the big game cover up as an intro picture, so keep that in mind.

Now, over time, I think a few people have cooled on their approval of the game, and I can definitely see why.  Still, it was a miracle the game came out, and the fact that it was actually as good as it was, and it’s actually pretty good, that’s saying something.  Still, that ending did a lot of damage, and in a lot of different ways, so we’re going to spend the next several hundred words talking about that.  Okay, this is the last warning, unmarked spoilers like crazy coming up.

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Copyright Square Enix

So, Final Fantasy XV is pretty fun up until about Chapter 13.  Prompto has been knocked off of the train that the boys spend the last main chunk of the game in, and while Noctis and Gladiolus aren’t at each others throats any more, there is still a lot of tension.  It’s a shame that the Niflheim stuff isn’t open world like the Lucis stuff is, because it’s clear that all of that stuff is already made, it’s just the quests don’t work, and the map apparently isn’t done.  People glitch on to it, and there are places to drive, but there isn’t anything great.

Chapter 13, however, turns into one long, slow ass dungeon crawl, which sees the Regalia destroyed (cool), Noctis fight through a really long, solo dungeon that attempts way too many jump scares (lame) and Ignis and Gladiolus just vanish.  They apparently do their own thing, which isn’t that much cooler, but it does allow the player to skip some of the bullshit.  Then it ends with a long boss fight, some revelations, and Noctis vanishing into a crystal.  In the crystal, Bahamut tells him that he has to die to stop the Starscourge, that the Empire of Niflheim has been consumed by the Starscourge and that Ardyn is telling the truth.  Ardyn, before Noctis drops into the crystal, reveals that he’s actually related, distantly, to Noctis, and it sets up the final battle.  It also completely tears the game apart.

First, after building the Emperor up as this ruthless, unyielding bastard becomes, and I’m serious about this, a random boss fight that harries the party after they all meet up for a bit.  Seriously, he’s a boss fight that pretends to be a random enemy for a few bits of the dungeon, but is actually really tough.  It’s dumb.  Plus, thanks to the Starscourge and the daemons (along with Ardyn’s machinations) Niflheim completely falls apart and the people who had been the bad guys literally up until this moment just vanish.  It’s not the worst time that has happened (wait, Golbez is actually Cecil’s brother and we have to go to the moon and get the moon crystals, because this game is too short.  Actually, that’s not the worst, and in context, it’s kind of cool), but it’s still pretty dumb.  One of the reasons XII works so well is that the Archades Empire remains a credible threat throughout, and that since they are the bad guys.  Venat doesn’t just kill of Cidolfus or Vayne and declare himself the big bad or anything.  Hell, Vayne going rogue and merging with Venat is basically their suicide charge, since they’ve already lost and want to make sure no one wins.  It’s cool and it’s effective, and while XV does have the player follow along with Ardyn much more than with the Emperor, the game sets Ardyn up to be the Emperor’s emissary.

Sure, Ardyn is supposed to be like Kefka, and he usurps the Emperor, and that’s totally fine, but the rest of Niflheim just falls apart.  Kefka at least kills Vector when he destroys the entire World of Balance, and we, the players see all of that happen.  Ardyn and the Starscourge just basically causes the empire to fall apart before we even arrive in the city.  Worse, the whole game is sort of set up, until around Chapter 13 to be a means of taking down Niflheim.  All four of the boys have a personal stake in doing so, and while the Starsourge is cool, it’s more of a setting back drop.  It’s not important until more than halfway through the game, when Lunafreya gets offed, and it’s barely mentioned as anything before Chapter 9 as anything besides the source of the world’s monsters.  It would be if the moon in VIII suddenly became the bad guy and the source of every problem in the game, and killed Ultimecia.  Or something.  Maybe that did happen.  VIII is a weird ass game.

Anyway, most of that are just quibbles.  The real problem is the rest of the game.  Chapter 14 has Noctis wake up 10 years later, where the sun hasn’t risen since his trip into the crystal, and while it does give one great scene right before the final battle, which is one of my favorite Final Fantasy moments ever (seriously, it made me cry), it also runs into so many problems.  First, of course, it stretches suspension of disbelief, since a decade without sunlight is insane.  Especially since the sun prevents monsters from just crawling out of the ground, and the monsters we see in the World of Ruin are fucking powerful as Hell.  Level 60 and above.  Shit, Demon Wall was there.  Demon Wall is a boss.  Second, it the time difference makes the reunion feel hollow.  There are some implications that the boys knew Noctis would come back, and that they knew because of what happened in the crystal, but the way it’s set up, it’s like he’s only been gone for a few weeks.  It really seems like 10 years is only there because it being a 10 year game was one of the original promises, and to give Talcott some pay off, but Iris could have been the person to pick up Noctis.

Then, of course, we have the final battle.  It’s got a great line (get out of my chair, jester.  The King sits there), but it’s also totally alone.  The game is about the boys and their brotherhood.  It’s why they all, Noctis included, wear Kingsguard uniforms to the final battle.  Even when they fracture, it’s their mutual love and brotherhood that brings them together, and the final scene before going into Insomnia for the last time is all about how they face the final battle together, as brothers.  Also, the very opening of the game is them going up against Ifrit, at the end of the world.  It should be great, but in the end, Noctis and Ardyn have a crazy Dragon Ball Z battle through the air, then Noctis sacrifices himself to end Ardyn’s immortality, and Noctis gets to be with Lunafreya in the afterlife.

Noctis dying, weirdly, becomes the easy way out.  Instead of losing Lunafreya, instead of having to suffer alone on a throne and rebuild a kingdom out of nothing, Noctis gets to have everything.  Sure, he “dies,” but the final scene shows that he gets to be with his love and be married in the afterlife.  He doesn’t have to suffer on earth with his friends, and rebuild a broken world.  Terra doesn’t get to die in Final Fantasy VI when the magic goes away, because she has to be there to raise the children (also because you can potentially beat the game without her, you monster).  She found her place in the world, she got to have her arc, and killing her would be pointless and grim.  Here, it’s sort of the opposite.  It’s a dark game, and in this instance, Noctis gets to die instead of doing the hard work.  It’s a shame.

Still, it’s an otherwise great game.  Probably best to just ignore everything after Chapter 12, though.  Or, at least, Episode Prompto.  I hear that one is pretty good.